There are various ways to try Debian before you ‘buy’ it. One is the live CD either Debian or Ubuntu, and the other is to run a self contained install from a USB drive. Seeing as these handy little gadgets are getting larger and cheaper as time goes in, this is a pretty viable method of doing things.
When I first tried this a year or so ago, I found it almost impossible to figure it out. Luckily a little further down the line, it is as easy as it could be. If you can complete an install on a normal hard drive, you can complete is on a USB drive. If I can do it then anyone can! Previously there were lots of command line action needed to get anywhere with a USB install. Now it’s pretty much the same as a standard one!
Caution: You should have all of your important files backed up before you try this or any other installs…use at your own risk.
I will now describe the basics of putting this altogether, assuming you have a decent speed USB drive with a capacity larger than 256mb. Decent speed is quite important as you are running almost everything from the drive. My first install used a cheapo slow-o drive that seemed to take an eternity to do anything. Then I upgraded to my 8gb Patriot Xt and now it flies.
To get started, load the Debian installer disk as usual and choose graphical install. Go through the normal install routine until you get to Partition Method. Here you want to choose your USB drive. In my case it came up as /sda.
Select ‘All files in one partition’ at the next option. This is the easiest way to run things on an external drive. You can partition if you want to, but it complicates life somewhat so I’m not going to cover it here.
Complete the process as you would a normal install. Make all the selections you would do on an HDD, just make them relevant where necessary to you /sda mount point. Also ensure you install the Grub bootloader onto the USB drive, otherwise it won’t work.
Once you have made your selections, the install process begins. It may take a while depending on the speed of your USB drive. Once done remove the drive and reboot your machine. When your machine reboots access the BIOS and add the selection to be able to boot from a removable device or USB drive. Where this is will vary depending on your motherboard.
Save and reboot once more making sure you plug your USB drive in. Grub should then load and you get the option to boot into Debian from the drive! Worked for me!
When using Debian in this way you don’t really notice the difference from a standard install. Space may become an issue if you use this method for a prolonged period of time, but that will depend entirely on the size of the USB stick you use.